TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

“. . . And to define America, her athletic democracy.” The Philosopher and the Language Shaper: In Memory of Richard Rorty (part 1)

The following is the first part of an address delivered by Jürgen Habermas at Stanford University on Friday, November 2, 2007. Part 2 will appear on Saturday, and part 3 on Monday. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the journal New Literary History, which will publish it in early 2008, in an issue devoted to Richard Rorty.

Dear Mary, dear Friends and Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Given the highly personal occasion that brings us together here today, please allow me to start with a private memory.

I first met Richard Rorty in 1974 at a conference on Heidegger in San Diego. At the beginning of the convention, a video was screened of an interview with the absent Herbert Marcuse, who in it described his relationship to Heidegger in the early 1930s more mildly than the sharp post-War correspondence between the two men would have suggested. Much to my annoyance, this set the tone for the entire conference, where an unpolitical veneration of Heidegger prevailed. Only Marjorie Green, who had likewise studied in Freiburg prior to 1933, passed critical comment, saying that back then at best the closer circle of Heidegger students, and Marcuse belonged to it, could have been deceived as to the real political outlook of their mentor.

In this ambivalent mood I then heard a professor from Princeton, known to me until then only as the editor of a famed collection of essays on the Linguistic Turn, put forward a provocative comparison. He tried to strike harmony between the dissonant voices of three world-famous soloists in the frame of a strange concert: Dewey, the radical democrat and the most political of the pragmatists, performed in this orchestra alongside Heidegger, that embodiment of the arrogant German mandarin par excellence. And the third in this unlikely league was Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations had taught me so much; but he, too, was not completely free of the prejudices of the German ideology, with its fetishization of spirit, and cut a strange figure as a comrade of Dewey. [1]

Certainly, from the perspective of Humboldt and philosophical hermeneutics, a look at the world-disclosing function of language reveals an affinity between Heidegger and Wittgenstein. And that discovery must have fascinated Rorty, given that Thomas Kuhn had convinced him to read the history of science from a contextualist vantage point. But how did Dewey fit in this constellation—the embodiment of that democratic wing of the Young Hegelians that we had so sorely lacked in Europe? After all, Dewey’s way of thinking stood in strident contrast to the Greco-German pretension, the high tone and elitist gesture of the Few who claim a privileged access to truth against the many.

At that time, I found the association so obscene that I quite lost my cool in the discussion. Surprisingly, however, the important colleague from Princeton was by no means irritated by the resilient protest from the backwoods of Germany and instead was so kind as to invite me into his seminar. For me, my visit to Princeton marked the beginning of a friendship as happy and rewarding as instructive. On the bedrock of shared political convictions, we were easily able to discuss and endure our philosophical differences. Thus, the kind of “priority of politics over philosophy” that Dick defended as a topic tacitly served as a source of our continuing relation. As regards Heidegger, incidentally, my initial agitation was unfounded. Dick likewise felt a greater affinty to the pragmatic Heidegger of the early parts of Being and Time than to the esoteric thinker who devoutly listened to the voice of Being. [2]

After the first meeting, Dick sent me an offprint of his essay “The World Well Lost”; at the time, the title’s ironic allusion could itself have drawn my attention to the intellectual and the writer behind the philosopher Richard Rorty. However, I read the essay, with its stringent analytical argumentation, the way one tends to read articles from the Journal of Philosophy. Only with hindsight did I realize that it was a preliminary piece for that critique of the modern paradigm of epistemology that he was to publish a few years later as Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a book that was to have such an impact. What was revolutionary in the study was less the careful explication and critical reconstruction of the linguistic turn performed in different ways by both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, but more the insistence on one crucial consequence of the shift from “consciousness” to “language.” Step by step, Rorty deconstructs the spectator model of “representative” or “fact-copying” thought. And this critique went to the heart of a discipline that since Russell and Carnap was concerned with achieving scientific respectability by a logical and semantic treatment of fundamental epistemological issues first raised in the 17th century.

Allow me to briefly remind you of the key issue here. If facts cannot be construed independently of the propositional structure of our language and if the truth of opinions or statements can only be corrected by other opinions or statements, then any idea of truth as a correspondence between sentences and facts “out there” is misleading. We cannot describe nature in a language we assume to be nature’s own language. According to the pragmatist interpretation, the “copying” of reality is replaced by a problem-solving “coping” with the challenges of an overcomplex world. In other words, we acquire our knowledge of facts in the course of a constructive approach to a surprising environment. Nature only provides indirect answers as all its answers refer to the grammar of our questions. What we call the “world” therefore does not consist of the totality of facts. For us, it is the sum total of the cognitively relevant constraints imposed on our attempts to learn from and achieve control over contingent natural processes through reliable predictions.

Rorty’s painstaking analysis of the assumed representative function of the knowing mind deserves the respect also of those colleagues who are not willing to follow the ambitious thrust of the author’s conclusions. This ambition was revealed back then by the way the English title was expanded on for the German translation: Here, The Mirror of Nature was subtitled A Critique of Philosophy—meaning philosophy as such. I myself first grasped the entire range of Rorty’s project, and thus the meaning behind that strange constellation of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Dewey, when I read the introduction to his essay collection Consequences of Pragmatism (1982). If one knew the author in persona, it was not easy to match the extraordinary claims of this philosopher, writer, and political intellectual with the modest, shy, and sensitive habit of the person of the same name. His public appearances were characterized by rhetorical brilliance, controlled passion, the charm of a youthful, at times polemically acute mind, indeed by a certain pathos. Deflation and understatement can have a pathos of their own. But behind the aura of the impressive speaker and writer and the passionate teacher lay concealed that honest and soft, nobly restrained and infinitely loveable man who hated nothing more than any pretense of profundity. Yet, for all our reverence for the character of a friend, we must not fail to mention the pretensions of the philosophical claims he championed.

Richard Rorty had in mind nothing less than to foster a culture that liberated itself from what he saw as the conceptual obsessions of Greek philosophy—and a fetishism of science that sprouted from the furrows of that metaphysics. What he understood “metaphysics” to mean and what he criticized about it can be best seen if we bear in mind what this critique was borne of: “Philosophers became preoccupied with images of the future only after they gave up the hope of gaining knowledge of the eternal.” [3] Platonism keeps its gaze fixed on the immutable ideas of the good and the true and spawns a web of categorical distinctions in which the creative energies of a self-generating human species ossify. Rorty does not construe the priority of essence over appearance, of the universal over the particular, of necessity over contingency or of nature over history as a purely theoretical matter. Because this is a matter of structuring ways of life, he seeks to train his contemporaries in a vocabulary that articulates a different view of the world and of ourselves.

A second, radical boost of the Enlightenment, so Rorty’s hope, would rejuvenate the authentic motifs of a shattered Modernity. Modernity must scoop all normativity from within itself. There is no longer any authority or foundation beyond the opaque ebb and flow of contingencies. No one is able to exit from her local context without finding herself in a different one. At the same time, the human condition is characterized by the fact that the sober recognition of the finitude and corruptibility of human beings—the recognition of the fallibility of the mind, the vulnerability of the body, and the fragility of social bonds—can and should become the motor driving the creativity of a restless self-transformation of society and culture. Against this backdrop, we must, so Rorty, learn to see ourselves as the sons and daughters of a self-confident Modernity, if in our politically, economically, and socially torn global society Walt Whitman’s belief in a better future is to have a chance at all. The democratic voice of hope for a brotherly and inclusive form of social life must not fall silent.

The moving songs of the public intellectual Richard Rorty—his interviews and lectures, his exoteric doctrines of “contingency, irony, and solidarity,” the treatises that were disseminated worldwide—they are all infused with the peculiarly romantic and very personal triple voice of meta-philosophy, neo-pragmatism, and leftist patriotism. For this life and work, I can think of no more fitting an epitaph than an inscription by Walt Whitman dating from 1871. Under the heading of To Foreign Lands, these are words that Dick might have also directed to his European friends:

I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle
     in the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them
     what you wanted.

Click here for part 2 of Jürgen Habermas’s address.


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977).

2. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 190f.

3. Richard Rorty, “Philosophy and the Future,” in Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., ed., Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to His Critics (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995), p. 199.

Comments are closed.